Can a little pile of what look to be broken-up pretzel sticks really be the wave of the energy future?

Maybe so.

The "pretzel sticks" are Woodex fuel pellets, which can be made from any fibrous wood or agricultural waste.

They were developed by Rudolf W. Gunnerman, president of Bio-Solar Research and Development Corp. in Eugene, Ore. Manufacturers franchised to produce Woodex pellets claim they are "the first real breakthrough in refining biomass for energy on a large commercial scale."

"It's the hottest thing on the market," said an engineer from Virginia whose firm is considering getting a Woodex franchise.

There still are some bugs to be worked out, but the three-year-old process already has had some impressive success stories.

Western States Hospital in Fort Steilacoom, Wash., converted from gas (with coal as an emergency backup) to Woodex in 1977. The switch is saving an estimated $100,000 to $125,000 annually. And besides, going to Woodex saved the hospital another $225,000 it would have cost to bring its coal-burning equipment up to federal antipollution standards.

Meanwhile, Woodex licensees are putting up plants as fast as they can. Ten already are on line in the United States and Canada, and they plan to put up another 100 within the next 18 months.

Plans also are in the works to test-market the product for residential use this winter in parts of New England and the Pacific Northwest. This expansion of the industry will require setting up a distribution network, since current Woodex customers are industrial or institutional users that contract for direct delivery from the plants.

Woodex franchisees, along with others in the wood-pellet industry, are cheering about the funds to be made available to them under the biomass portion of the National Energy Security Act, as the synfuels bill is properly known.

Of the $1.45 billion to be distributed through the Department of Energy and Agriculture over the coming two fiscal years, $700 million will be available for price and loan guarantees, as well as purchase agreements, for biomass energy projects.

A big advantage of biomass is that the facilities can be built and put into operation in just a few months, instead of the years it is expected to take to get the synfuels industry off the ground.

Woodex yields only about two-thirds as much energy, pound for pound, as does coal: about 8,500 Btus for the pellets as against 12,600 for coal. But a publication of the Solar Energy Research Institute, speaking of wood pellets generally and not just Woodex, says, "We find that the real energy price of pelletized fuel can be competitive with stoker coal, lower than oil or natural gas, and higher than unprocessed fuel."